Four Reasons we need a ‘Theology of Presence’

  1. While Christians are currently very excited about technology and our ability to use the tools responsibly and for the proper ends, the purpose of some of those technologies will be determined in part by the nature of who is using them.  Subordinating our understanding of technology beneath a theology of presence orients us toward the people using tools, rather than the tools themselves.  This isn’t an either/or, but I think we’ve got to get the order right.
  2. There’s a deeply depersonalizing edge to contemporary technology that an account of presence cuts against.  You can see it in the shift within evangelicalism from communion to communication.  While communion is about the proper relationship of persons, communication (a derivative term, though not a bad one) is about the proper transfer of information.
  3. Currently, the only way which we can notice or attend to others’ presence online is if they are active in some way.  As online engagement increases, we run the risk of letting that sense of activity and doing overwhelm our more basic presence and being.
  4. Distractions are increasing and we need to think through what presence looks like as a mode of life.
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  • pdve

    Matt,

    You might be interested in following Rob Horning’s blog Marginal Utility and its Annex. Horning frequently reflects critically on social technologies in illuminating ways that are quite amendable to theological “baptism.” I think a lot of what he has to say will be relevant to your own thinking on the theology of presence.

    Here is a choice example:

    That this personal-branding perspective has become so ubiquitous seems to suggest the power of Facebook as a medium to reorient the focus of our self-presentation as a matter of soliciting “likes” or other digital responses of recognition. The human need for recognition is of course nothing new, but what is new is that social media allows our identity to persist in the marketplace for recognition at all times. Because our profile is always accessible and permeable to comments and such, we are never free from wondering whether someone is paying attention to us, approving. We get no respite from the availability of praise or notice, which makes nearly every moment a frantic online scramble to find the evidence of that recognition—did anyone e-mail? Have my Twitter posts been retweeted? Who has responded to my status update? Have my likes triggered a like cascade among my network? [...] The default is virtual presence, and that presence haunts our actual selves, promising more than we can possibly derive from our minuscule place in space-time. What’s lost is the shelter we once inherently had from being on, the limits of technology affording us the solace of true disconnection. Now disconnection is almost entirely a state of mind, requiring a Buddhist’s will of renunciation. It’s only willpower that is keeping our eyes unglued to screens, looking for ourselves on them.

    • Matthew Lee Anderson

      Thanks, PDVE. That’s brilliant stuff. I’m definitely hooked and ready to read through the archives.

  • http://blazingmole.blogetery.com Josh

    Matt, I’m a recently established fan of M.O. Really loving it. You may have fleshed this out in previous posts and I’m just unaware of it, but could you detail what you’re meaning by “presence?” You kind of hint at it and I think I know what you mean, but it remains a rather abstract concept in this post.

    • Matthew Lee Anderson

      Josh,

      Yeah, I realize that’s ambiguous now. More to come later this week or early next week, I hope, when I distinguish between various senses of “presence.” : )

      matt

  • http://wspapers.wordpress.com/ David Nilsen

    Matt, are we talking “real” presence, or merely memorial “presence”? :P

    • Matthew Lee Anderson

      Why “merely”? : )

  • http://wspapers.wordpress.com/ David Nilsen

    To denote the inferiority of the memorialist position. ;)

    More seriously, though, does your reflecting on a “theology of presence” ever touch on Eucharistic theology, or is that not a connection that you’re exploring?

    • Matthew Lee Anderson

      It has to at some point, doesn’t it? Luther vs. Zwingli is all about presence.

      • http://wspapers.wordpress.com/ David Nilsen

        That’s what I was thinking (or hoping, at least), but I’m also inclined to say that there’s going to be enough of a gap between how we ordinary folk are “present” and how the two natures of the God-Man are “present” that it could be easily avoided. Then AGAIN, the Reformed position is that Christ’s humanity is actually like ours in every way, apart from sin, in which case the two topics would have to directly overlap. So I can expect a chapter on the Lord’s Supper? Excellent.

  • http://j.hn/ John Dyer

    We are never present apart from the context – God and God’s creation – in which we present ourselves. Our contexts – a forest, a car, a prison, a website – set the boundaries and rules for the kind of presence we can have.

    So tools should certainly be subordinated under human persons in the chain of being, yet I think we must also affirm that human being cannot be examined as an abstract concept “off the chain.”

    • Matthew Lee Anderson

      John, don’t go muddying up my pristine categories now. : )

      That said, I want to underscore that I totally agree with you. 100%. In fact, I think we say very similar things on this in our respective books (this is my point about buildings setting the context for what responses are “plausible”).

      But I’m not comfortable with the language of “present” ourselves. Must we turn our being into a verb? Is there no presence beneath presentation, or is our being necessarily our doing and vice versa? That may be true of God, but I’m not sure it’s true of us.

      Thomas Aquinas is gonna help us sort through this all. I know it. : )

      matt

      • http://wspapers.wordpress.com/ David Nilsen

        “But I’m not comfortable with the language of “present” ourselves.”

        At all? Or do you just dislike using “present” as ONLY a verb and never a noun (or pronoun, perhaps?)? Because obviously as soon as I read this statement I thought, “present yourselves as a living sacrafice…” But I’m sure you wouldn’t have forgotten about that. :)

        • Matthew Lee Anderson

          Dave, obviously present has to be a verb as well. But presenting ourselves might be different than being present. Might be.

      • http://j.hn/ John Dyer

        And I, too, agree with you. I just like to leave kooky aphorisms in comments.

        Perhaps Hegel will be a friend as well.

        • Matthew Lee Anderson

          I totally deserve that. : )

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  • http://bensimpson.squarespace.com Ben Simpson

    Fantastic, and incredibly encouraging. My own thoughts on technology and presence have traced the lines of incarnation and sacrament. The former, as a Baptist, is no surprise; Christocentric language and focus has come naturally. Yet, as a Baptist the latter is odd, but nonetheless, I find it indispensable. Baptism and the meal bind us together as the church and as those belonging to Christ.

    No doubt this is a correlative to your exploration of the body. Keep up the good work, Matt.

  • Donald Williamson

    From Donald Williamson at donald.williamson75@gmail.com

    The following is excerpted from a much longer article I have published entitled THE MYTH OF “NATURAL FLOURISHING” AND THE RISE OF THE SUBURBS: PART 1, BACKGROUND AND OVERVIEW ©Donald Williamson, Jr. You are free to cite it with attribution. Thanks.

    “…(I)f Christians are to engage and transform cultures to God’s glory. In the words of Albert Hsu, in his warm-hearted and prophetic book, The Suburban Christian: Whether we are ministering in suburban or urban contexts, our mission must be incarnational as well as invitational, with a holistic understanding of God’s kingdom transforming all of society, not just the individuals within. While appreciating the importance of one on one evangelism of individuals, Hsu quotes urban community developer Robert Lupton (Renewing the City) on the limitations of the individualistic mentality of suburban Christians.

    (S)uburban Christians, born and bred in individualism, (bring) with them into the city a church-centric theology of personal salvation and corporate worship. Ministry to the poor–ministry–to anyone–(is) evangelism driven. A vision for the rebirth of a community (can) only be understood through the lens of saving souls and adding to church rolls. The reclaiming of dangerous streets, the regeneration of fallen systems, the transformation of corrupted political powerÑthese (are) aspects of God’s redeeming work in the world that (have) somehow been omitted from their biblical teaching. (Renewing the City, pp. 224-25).

    Hsu calls for a theology of both occupation and engagement. Having a theology of occupation, in which Christians enter into and establish a significant presence in a particular community, is not enough, especially if they are only present with the intent of befriending and evangelizing neighbors. A critical mass of Christians must also be engaged with the community and seek ways to change societal ills, just as William Wilberforce’s suburban community of Christians banded together in Christian activism to abolish slavery. (The Suburban Christian, p. 188) (emphasis mine) But it is precisely at this point suburban Christians, caught up in the great evangelical disaster, experience
    difficulty! Enslaved (as are the schools they attend) by the “suburban mentality,” a product of … long-standing adverse social conditions that have eroded the foundation of Western culture, they have little difficulty “establish(ing) a significant presence in a particular community…” But they have great difficulty truly engaging that community. Their mindset is analogous to that of tourists traveling abroad. Tourists in foreign lands establish a significant “presence” in the communities they visit. In fact, tourist dollars are often the mainstay of those communities! But the tourists’ behavior is routinized. Usually following a carefully planned itinerary, they are expected to buy the local wares sold in the communities they visit, engage in friendly banter or casual chitchat with the “natives,” and move on to their next stop, where the process is repeated. Holding a round-trip ticket, they head home with pictures of the pretty places they’ve visited, “interesting” people they’ve met, and memories of their destinations that may or may not live up to the advertisements in the travel brochures. But they return essentially unchanged!

    …The capacity to enter into energetic and vital human relationships, to truly engage individuals and communities, must be present if our mission is to be “incarnational as well as invitational.” But engagement requires souls that are in good health, able to bow to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit! And the condition of the souls of most Americans today, including “evangelicals,” is anything but good. (e.g., The Barna Group found only 20 percent of professing evangelicals actually hold beliefs that, Biblically speaking, characterize the evangelical mindset. According to their research, as of 2006, only about 8 percent of American adults are genuine evangelicals.)”

    Please excuse its length. I Hope the above excerpt from my article is helpful in this worthwhile discussion! Thanks for initiating it, Matt.

    Don Williamson (By the way, James Davison Hunter’s “faithful presence” is not mere ‘presence,’ but true engagement or “incarnational presence”! Please take note of this.)

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  • greg

    Don, your comments are reminiscent of ‘Mysterium Fidei.’ My word-search on ‘present(ence)’ in Mysterium revealed what must have triggered the memory. Remarkable parallels.

    From Don Williamson: “[By the way] James Davison Hunter’s “faithful presence” is not mere ‘presence,’ but true engagement or “incarnational presence”!”

    From James Davison Hunter (CT, May 2010): “If there is a possibility for human flourishing in our world, it does not begin when we win the culture wars but when God’s word of love becomes flesh in us, reaching every sphere of social life.”

  • Donald Williamson

    Dear Greg,

    Interesting remarks! I wasn’t really thinking of the ‘Mysterium Fidei’ I think you are referring to when I wrote the above. But, of course, communion among believers may be understood at being at the core of our unity in the body of Christ. Holy Communion has wisely been contrasted with the behavior of wild animals, who (e.g., as we’ve seen in films of animals in the Serengeti National Park (Tanzania), snatch food from one another as they ravenously devour a dead carcass. What a contrast with brethren in Christ sharing in the Eucharist! (Sometimes small children will also snatch food from one another, a yummy cookie or other treat! Happily, for most of us, when we reach adulthood, we’ve grown beyond that–ha, ha–at least folks I know).

    • greg

      Don and Matthew: How does the role of priest get situated as ‘presence’ in the built-social environment?

      Was reading Chrysostom today and came upon:

      “For he [the priest] who acts as an ambassador on behalf of the whole city — but why do I say the city? On behalf of the whole world indeed —prays that God would be merciful to the sins of all, not only of the living, but also of the departed.” On the Priesthood, Book VI.4 [Sourced at Called to Communion]

  • http://menliketreeswalking.blogspot.com Matthew

    This may be of interest to the present discussion (sorry it’s a little late), as natural law is used to discuss the new urbanism. I’m not always the biggest fan of natural law, but I’m glad someone’s using for something interesting and novel:

    If suburbia, after all, provides all those different communities, why does suburban sprawl inhibit the genuine community life necessary for happiness? Why should we think that the careful Aristotelian and Thomistic philosophical account of human flourishing requires walkable communities?

  • http://commonplacephilosophy.com Tom Ward

    regarding 1: it seems slightly more accurate, to my ears, to say that the NATURE of our technologies will be determined in part by the PURPOSES that we use them for. Is this a distinction without a difference for you, or does something hang on your actual wording?

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